“Vince is a playmaker. He’s proven himself and (he’s) a guy who can come in here and teach our younger guys – I think he’s the perfect match … If Vince is listening, ‘come to San Diego.’” — Chargers linebacker Donald Butler commenting on the Patriots’ defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
As the third week of NFL free agency begins it is clear that Tom Telesco is sticking to his three-tiered plan of re-signing in-house free agents; restructuring salaries to help free up some money under the salary cap and signing some key free agents to bolster the talent on the roster.
Though he hasn’t made the ‘big-name’ free agent signing that fans are clamoring for – see the Broncos and Patriots moves – Telesco is content with building a deep roster with steady, if not spectacular, role players that fit into the Chargers’ overall scheme. You know, the same plan he used last year which catapulted the team back into the playoffs after a three-year hiatus.
Recently, Telesco talked about his strategy for this offseason with The Mighty 1090’s Darren Smith: “We feel very good about it, I know this may not have been a very sexy offseason for us but we had three things really as a game plan of what we had to get done this offseason. No. 1 was kind of cleaning up our own house and restructuring some contracts to give us some cap flexibility this year to get some things done that needed to get done – so that was a good start.
“Our main priority this year was to re-sign some of our own players and Donald Butler was obviously a big part of that; re-signing Darrell Stuckey who is an excellent special teamer was a big priority and Chad Rinehart who was a starting left guard for us who played well. Those were three guys that we really wanted to get back in the fold and also three guys that if we don’t have, now we have more holes.
“So we’re happy to get those guys and guys like Tutu (Seyi Ajirotutu) back. We wanted to get some of our own guys back and we were able to do that and the third part of that (his plan) was just to keep building that depth.
“We’re getting there little-by-little, we’re better this year than last year and we’re trying to build as deep of roster as we can because we need them all. So we were able to add some pieces there that we think can come in and really contribute in some roles with us.”
Telesco also re-signed two free agents he brought in last year, ILB Reggie Walker and CB Richard Marshall, as well as RB Donald Brown and ILB Kavell Edwards from the Colts, CB Brandon Ghee (Bengals), TE David Johnson (Steelers) and QB Kellen Clemmons (Rams).
While the addition of Walker and Edwards brings some much-needed depth behind Butler and Manti Te’o at the inside ’backer position, landing a defensive tackle via free agency or the upcoming NFL Draft in May has to be at the top of Telesco’s wish list. As bad as the Chargers need to shore up the secondary, specifically cornerback, if you can’t stop the run it doesn’t matter how great your pass coverage is.
The success to a 3-4 defense is a strong, physical presence at the nose tackle position who can stuff the run at the point of attack and occupy double teams (remember Jamal Williams?) to keep the offensive linemen off of the linebackers. The Chargers currently have just one veteran, Sean Lissemore, and three inexperienced players in Damik Scaffe, Kwame Geathers and Byron Jerideau on the roster.
Telesco moved up five spots in last years’ draft to select Te’o out of Notre Dame and by keeping Butler, one has to figure the second-year GM feels that barring injury, the team is set at inside linebacker for the next few years. After finishing last season 23rd in total defense (366.5 yds. per gm.) and 12th in run defense (107.8 yds. per gm.), securing a stud tackle to cause havoc along the defensive front will allow both Butler and Te’o to maximize their potential.
According to the various draft guides there are three defensive tackles with first-round grades – Louis Nix, Aaron Donald and Timmy Jernigan. Below is a closer look at each player along with a short synopsis from USA Today regarding their pros and cons.
Louis Nix – 6-2 1/2,
349 lbs., Notre Dame:
Pros – Has the talent to be the next Vince Wilfork. Stout at point of attack. Gets push up middle as a pass rusher. Explosive space occupier who absorbs blockers and keeps linebackers free. Disruptive enough to force plays deep. Gets hands up in throwing lane. Quick off ball and locks out and sheds. Clogs running lanes with girth and strength. Competitive with quick arm-over move. Good instincts and mobility for a huge man. Locks out and shuffles laterally down the line. Scheme-diverse at nose tackle or defensive tackle.
Cons – Must monitor weight so that he doesn’t get so big it affects his play. Coming off knee (meniscus) surgery.
Aaron Donald – 6-0 ¾,
288 lbs., Pittsburgh:
Pros – Undersized but productive interior under tackle in 4-3. Plays all over the front, looking for best matchup. Sudden off ball and upfield. Good lateral quickness and effort to finish. Slippery, leverage player. Works hard every play from snap to whistle. Good flexibility to dip and bend. Won Bednarick, Lombardi and Outland trophies and Nagurski awards. Unanimous All-American plus ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
Cons – Shorter than minimum for prototype defensive tackle. In rare occasions, can be rooted out of a hole by a double team.
Timmy Jernigan – 6-2,
298 lbs., Florida State:
Pros – Inside running lane road block. Top-level inside instincts and agility. Good lateral quickness and hand use to stack and shed head-on running plays. Plays low and with leverage to hold his ground. One-gap disruptive penetrator. Good interior instincts and tackle-to-tackle agility. Works through traffic to make plays. Presses pocket and gets upfield push. Can also be quick penetrator. Plays on his feet with good flexibility, base and quick hands.
Cons – Can continue to improve core strength to handle double teams.
Despite Butler’s wishes, it is highly unlikely Telesco would take a chance on Wilfork. First, the Chargers have limited cap space – Wilfork asked to be released from the Patriots after the team asked him to take a pay cut from the $7.5 million he is owed this upcoming season. Secondly, as great as the 31-year-old Wilfork has been over his career, the fact that he is trying to return from a torn Achilles at his age has to be a concern. Scouts Inc. has four defensive tackles ranked in their list of the top 32 NFL Draft prospects – Donald (#12), Nix III (#22), Jernigan (#30) and Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman (#19). While scanning over the various mock drafts the past few weeks only Sports Illustrated’s Doug Ferrar has the Chargers drafting the 6’6, 318 lbs. Hageman. Though he’s viewed undersized as a defensive tackle, there is no denying Donald’s production on the field where he garnered 66 tackles for loss – 28.5 this past season. Both Butler and Telesco’s quote regarding Wilfork is courtesy the Darren Smith Show.